A tradition that began in 1934 when Santa Anita offered the nation's first $100,000 handicap horse race will continue Sunday when horse racing's first $1 million handicap is run at the Arcadia track.
A million dollars is all it took in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression, to put together the entire package that became the Los Angeles Turf Club.
Now it will go for one race, the 49th Santa Anita Handicap.
Gwynn Wilson, who will be 90 next month, was there on opening day, Christmas 1934, as general manager and treasurer of the new track, and he'll be there two or three times this year. Wilson retired in 1962 but still enjoys a day at the track he built.
Wilson remembers when $1 million was so hard to come by that it took a compromise with Dr. Charles Henry (Doc) Strub of San Francisco to bring horse racing back after it had been legislated out of business in California for nearly 25 years.
"We were stuck for money down here, and Charlie was stuck for a site up north, so someone said, 'Let's get together,' " Wilson recalled during an interview in the den of his apartment in the Park La Brea Towers in West Los Angeles. "That's how Southern California, and not Northern California, got the track.
"Hal Roach headed a group trying to build a track in 1933 in Southern California, but after we raised about $500,000, mostly from the movie colony, we got stalled," Wilson said. "We were selling memberships at $5,000 each but couldn't get 200 members. Nobody had any money those days except the movie people."
The newly formed California Horse Racing Board insisted that a million dollars be in the bank before a license would be granted for a race meeting.
"Charlie had plenty of financial backing, but he wanted his track in the St. Francis Woods in San Francisco. The board granted a license to his St. Francis Jockey Club, but he couldn't get the zoning changed to build his track. He was frustrated, and when we suggested getting together, he came south."
Los Angeles had barely more than a million people at the time and San Francisco was the financial center of the West.
Roach, a motion picture magnate whose knowledge of horses was limited to polo ponies, was president of the LATC and wanted the new track in Culver City. Carleton Burke, who was chairman of the racing board, had other ideas, and he was the man who had to give the OK.
"Burke didn't care what we did as long as we built our race track on the old Lucky Baldwin ranch," Wilson said. "He thought that would be carrying on the traditions of racing Baldwin had started earlier."
Elias Jackson (Lucky) Baldwin, one of California's most prominent horse owners and breeders several decades earlier, had purchased Rancho Santa Anita in 1875 and built his own public race track in 1907, approximately where the Santa Anita golf course now exists. A mile oval, just like Santa Anita today, Baldwin's track opened on Thanksgiving 1907 and operated for two years before Baldwin died on March 1, 1909.
Horse racing was banned in California shortly thereafter, and it was not until 1933, when pari-mutuel betting was legalized, that racing returned.
"Taxes were hurting Anita Baldwin (Lucky's daughter), so it was easy for us to get the property we wanted," Wilson said. "Most of it was planted in grapes, so we decided to save the old Baldwin winery."
The winery, located about halfway down the backstretch, is still one of the memorable landmarks of Santa Anita.
"The first thing Charlie insisted on was a $100,000 race, a big handicap. He felt we needed it to give the new track some sparkle, to make it legitimate, especially in the eyes of the New York crowd where racing was big. People told him he was crazy, that he didn't need such extravagance, that $25,000 would be enough, but Charlie stuck by his guns."
The purse for the Kentucky Derby that year, by comparison, was $30,000.
Once the race was announced, Strub and Burke went East to persuade owners to bring the big horses West for the first time. Their success was remarkable. The stalls of Santa Anita that winter became a virtual Who's Who of Racing: Kentucky Derby winners Twenty Grand, from the Greentree Stable of Mrs. Payne Whitney, and Cavalcade, from the Brookmeade Stable; C.V. Whitney's Equipoise and High Glee, A.G. Bostwick's Mate, A.A. Baroni's Top Row, Dorwood Stable's Statesman and F.A. Carreaud's Time Supply.
"The first handicap was a unique field, undoubtedly the finest field, as far as names were concerned, ever put together," Wilson said. "Not all of them were in the best of shape, but they were here."
Azucar, a lightly regarded former steeplechase horse bred in England and owned by Fred Alger of Detroit, won the race with a stretch drive that overtook Ted Clark. Ladysman was two lengths back, with Time Supply third and Top Row fourth. The favorite, Equipoise, a 7-year-old, wound up seventh and Ted Clark, after leading by six lengths, faded to fifth.